My brother got the Out of the Unknown boxed set last year as a Christmas present. At a not inexpensive – by 2014 standards at least – £60, it’s one of these sets where you’re effectively buying it blindly in the hope that its reputation is well deserved, rather than buying it knowing it’s good.
I suppose in those situations it’s better to get it as a gift so that if it turns out to be crap, you can at least take solace in the fact that you didn’t waste your own money in the process!
Believe me, that was the only upside of me getting the boxed set of the anaesthetic-like Six Feet Under. *shudder*
Anyway, we watched a couple of episodes back in January, but neither of them were particularly entertaining. Indeed they were pretty dull if I’m being blunt about it. And on that note, the Out of the Unknown DVD boxed set slipped to the back of the queue.
But of course, the thing about a series like that is that all episodes are unique. For anyone who doesn’t know it, Out of the Unknown was a science fiction anthology series from the late 1960s/early 1970s; a sort of British version of the Twilight Zone if you like. So maybe those first two episodes were just poor representations of what is widely regarded as one of British television’s hidden gems.
So I demanded we give it another try.
And thankfully, it turned out that the next episode I watched was good. And so was the one after that.
With that in mind, I’ve got back into watching them. And I want to review them.
It occurs to me that my largest readership base comes from Doctor Who fans, and this might well be something Doctor Who fans would be interested in. Maybe it’ll encourage you to buy the boxed set? Maybe it’ll make your mind up for you that you shouldn’t bother. Or maybe you’re a big fan of the show and you’re keen to see how my opinions tally with yours.
Whatever your reason for reading, I hope you enjoy them.
And while I’ll go back to review the ones I’ve already seen at some point down the line, I’ll start with the one I most recently watched; ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…?’
Out of the Unknown – Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come….? Review: What’s This One About?
The local fishmonger, Henry Wilkes, has a passion for tropical plants, and grows them in his back garden. His wife, friends and colleagues find his obsession a tad over the top, especially considering he talks to them and gives them all names.
But as it turns out, the plants are able to communicate back to him.
Things are not all that they seem.
Thoughts – A Very Gentle Seeds of Doom
Ok, so there are going to be plenty of call-backs to Doctor Who in these reviews, as there are obvious parallels to be drawn considering both shows are British Science fiction from the 60s and 70s.
In this case, we have a story that’s pretty similar to the Seeds of Doom in that it’s a man who is obsessed with plant life to the extent that he values it way ahead of animal life. He’s not a lunatic like Harrison Chase though; he’s just a normal guy, a gentle guy.
And while the plants aren’t Krynoids that could take over the world given half a chance, the ones on display here are menacing in their own way.
Being able to draw these parallels helped my enjoyment of this episode because I was able to get an idea of what was going to happen and anticipate it in advance, but even with that in mind, it still has to stand on its own merits.
And it does.
I think the greatest strength of this episode is the pacing.
It works as a story that builds up in a gradual and engrossing way to draw the viewer in.
At the beginning there are just a few small nods to the situation that will unfold. The plants are wild but under control and Wilkes is a happy man. The little nods to Wilkes mindset are on show with him being unhappy at his shop assistant eating a sandwich with vegetables in it, but nothing major. Similarly, Wilkes’s wife’s story starts slowly too. She’s a little bit unnerved staying at home all day but isn’t quite sure why.
And then when the local Doctor makes a house call, he remarks that he finds that there’s something peculiar about the garden but isn’t sure what. I suppose the viewer is supposed to think that it’s because Wilkes’s garden is full of plants that shouldn’t be able to survive in British climates without a greenhouse, but as it would turn out, it wasn’t that.
Gradually, the story develops into something altogether more sinister. At first, we see that the plants are more wild and full of movement than you might expect. Then – off screen – they appear to pull the troublesome child that lives next door – who torments Wilkes with his slingshot every morning – off the wall to attack him (although it’s only hinted at; the idea is that perhaps he fell off the wall). Then they appear to eat his wife’s dog, although again it’s not shown on-screen and left unresolved as to whether or not that happens. And after that? Well I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it.
Meanwhile, over the course of the episode, Wilkes behavior becomes more erratic and unusual. It’s solid stuff.
But the fantastic reveal for me, the moment that the penny drops for the characters in the episode, is when the Doctor – visiting again after Wilkes’ wife takes a turn for the worst – realises exactly what is peculiar about the garden; that there are no birds. Of course, that’s the point that the viewers realise that the plants are eating them.
It all builds up to quite the climax, and without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it (which I imagine will be most of you), it’s left on a frustratingly brilliant cliffhanger that would never be resolved.
The Old British Actors Checklist
It seems as though every episode of Out of the Unknown has a host of British character actors that any Classic Doctor Who fan is bound to recognise.
In this episode, 60s and 70s Doctor Who mainstay Bernard Kay shows up as a detective. Huzzah.
Other than him, look out for appearances by Eric Thompson (Gaston from The Massacre), Alan Haywood (Prince Hector from The Myth Makers), Nigel Lambert (Harden from The Leisure Hive) and well-known faces of British Cinema, Patsy Rowlands (Carry Ons) and Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger from Oliver).
- I’ve deliberately not touched upon the sub plot of the Wilkes’s mysterious botanist pen-pal, Mr. Pringle. I think if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth letting that play out without me spoiling it. However, if you have
seen the episode I’m sure you’ll agree that it was very well done, and left on just the right amount of mystery.
- From the file marked ‘Things You Take For Granted Now That Weren’t There At The Time’, Wilkes’s assistant makes coffee using a boiling pot of water rather than a kettle. Oh how times have changed.
- And yet they have a fridge, which seems at odds with what these modern documentaries about food and gadgets through the ages would suggest.
- Considering when this was made, the special effects for the plants are very good. Obviously it’s shot on film and therefore holds up quite well in terms of picture quality too.
- It’s also odd – and I’m mainly basing this on Doctor Who of course – to see outside broadcast footage from that era shot on videotape.
- Before we go any further, I have to make mention of the theme music of Out of the Unknown, which is basically the incidental music from episode one of the Keys of Marinus. Epic!
- It’s obviously not the done thing, but I’d have cheered if the plants had eaten the little boy. He absolutely deserved it, the wee shite.
- There’s a funny ‘Of The Time’ moment where the Doctor asks in passing if Wilkes was messing around with another woman. It’s not that he’d have been fussed either way, but he just wanted to know.
- Meanwhile there’s an altogether more sinister scene where Wilkes ‘tickles’ his plants, while telling them to be quiet and that everything was going to be alright. Maybe it was a Yewtree he was doing that to?
- Though reviews of individual episodes of Out of the Unknown are few and far between on the internet, I did read one that suggested this one was bogged down with soap opera style interaction between the characters, and didn’t spend nearly enough time on the plants. I totally disagree. By keeping the plants to a minimum and focusing on the changing behaviour of Wilkes and his wife, I thought it all held up as best as it could have.
- The only thing that was unbelievable – even within the context of this episode – was that Wilkes’s character refused to eat any vegetable and would get deeply upset at seeing parsley used for decoration. Unless he was getting slowly more insane, he couldn’t possibly have lived his life like that for however old he was.
- And speaking of how old he was, both Wilkes and the guy playing the Doctor were in their mid-40s when this was made. Wow. Tough paper rounds.
Out of the Unknown – Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come….? Review: Final Thoughts
On then whole, this was a thoroughly enjoyable episode, perhaps even to a surprising degree.
I’m sure most of you would assume a science fiction anthology show would be based around stories set in outer space of the far future, but this one – set as it is in suburban 1960s England – worked just fine.
There’s no real need to watch Out of the Unknown in any particular order, so if you did fancy giving it a try, this would be a great starting point.
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